When it comes to war movies, a few key films stick out in your head. They span various generations and undoubtedly we’ve seen a resurgence of them due to not only the success of them of late but also because the market for them seems to be greater than it ever has been before. While some tackle current wars, others delve back into the Vietnam or Korean War territory; but it’s the World War II films that seem to not only have the widest audience but also is home to some of the absolute greatest war films ever made. Undoubtedly there have been some absolute stinkers in the group over the years…and it’s because of this film, Saving Private Ryan, that we saw such a resurgence since its theatrical debut in 1998.
Steven Spielberg directed this powerful, realistic re-creation of WWII’s D-day invasion and the immediate aftermath. The story opens with a prologue in which a veteran brings his family to the American cemetery at Normandy, and a flashback then joins Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and GIs in a landing craft making the June 6, 1944, approach to Omaha Beach to face devastating German artillery fire. This mass slaughter of American soldiers is depicted in a compelling, unforgettable 24-minute sequence. Miller’s men slowly move forward to finally take a concrete pillbox. On the beach littered with bodies is one with the name “Ryan” stenciled on his backpack. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell), learning that three Ryan brothers from the same family have all been killed in a single week, requests that the surviving brother, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), be located and brought back to the United States. Capt. Miller gets the assignment, and he chooses a translator, Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davis), skilled in language but not in combat, to join his squad of right-hand man Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), plus privates Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), cynical Reiben (Edward Burns) from Brooklyn, Italian-American Caparzo (Vin Diesel), and religious Southerner Jackson (Barry Pepper), an ace sharpshooter who calls on the Lord while taking aim. Having previously experienced action in Italy and North Africa, the close-knit squad sets out through areas still thick with Nazis. After they lose one man in a skirmish at a bombed village, some in the group begin to question the logic of losing more lives to save a single soldier. The film’s historical consultant is Stephen E. Ambrose, and the incident is based on a true occurrence in Ambrose’s 1994 bestseller D-Day: June 6, 1944.
I know what you’re thinking. “Holy crap that was a long synopsis!” Yes…yes it was. But it was what Paramount provided to me and for anyone who hasn’t seen the film it really is the best summary of the first half of the film there is. The film is nearly three hours long and it genuinely feels like a journey to get through it…but it’s such a fantastic ride through this specific tale from World War II that it never feels tedious. Of course there is a cornucopia of war violence throughout the film and there seems to be as much blood in it as there are cameos or small roles by well-known talent (hello Nathan Fillion, Paul Giamati, Ted Danson, and Vin Diesel!). As violent and graphic as the film is, when you boil it all down it’s really about the comradery between the men in the group that was tasked with saving and pulling Private Ryan out of the war.
Saving Private Ryan is definitely an exhausting film to watch, especially if you do it in one sitting. The first time I viewed the film I was mesmerized—and this was in simple stereo sound (at the time I was watching the D-Day version which had DTS-only audio for 5.1 and my DVD player at the time didn’t decode DTS for whatever stupid reason). That first time was actually my only time and although I’d watched other World War II productions since then (notably Band of Brothers on Blu-ray), I just didn’t pop Saving Private Ryan back in the player. It’s not really a film you can just watch unless you’re really in the mood to do so; as I said before it’s definitely an experience and it takes its toll on you. Even as someone who likes the gratuitous violence that modern action films cook up, the violence in Ryan is too real to really get excited about seeing. It’s simply a very realistic, gritty, and emotional type of violence that this film employs, so as thrilling as it all sounds, there’s simply too much actual death and turmoil developing on the screen to ever be caught up in it as you would with a movie like The Matrix or Shoot ‘em Up.
By now the praises of Ryan have been sung for more than a decade so there is little else I can possibly say to urge people to watch it. It is without a doubt one of my favorite films of all time and unless you’re incredibly squeamish I can’t recommend it enough. Must See.
The Sapphire Series from Paramount got off to a rocky start when Gladiator came out with such a lackluster video transfer. Thankfully the other entries in the line haven’t disappointed and Saving Private Ryan is definitely not an experience you want to miss. The movie itself arrives in a two-disc Elite Blu-ray case with the reflective foil/embossed slipcover making itself noticed on the shelf. Inside the case are the two discs, both with a grey wash disc art, and nothing else but a few pieces of paper. While the prospect of two-discs sounds exciting, I’m sure, keep in mind there is nothing new here except the A/V transfer—the second disc are all the same extras we’ve received before (and in standard definition), although there are a few new ones that weren’t previously available on DVD (but in the same regard they were not newly produced for this release either).
As far as the video goes though…man, it really is amazing. Perhaps it’s because the last time I watched this film it was on DVD on a 27” CRT TV (it was, at least, a flat screen with component inputs) in Dolby 2.0, but watching it on Blu-ray was just about as exciting as the first time I saw it. Now armed with a 52” set, 1080p video and DTS-HD 5.1 MA audio I am given the opportunity to really experience the movie like never before…and it is truly fantastic. The video is absolutely beautiful, with an AVC encoded 1.85:1 transfer commanding your attention from start to finish. Close-up shots just ooze facial detail (and hair follicles) and the whole washed out look of the film really translates well to the format. Because the film was shot on film, there is a slight grain to the piece, but it really just adds to the experience and isn’t anything that detracts from it in the least. Overall an absolutely astonishing transfer for a brilliant movie.
And now…the audio. I was reading up on this films history and apparently when it came out in theaters, owners were encouraged to amp up the volume of the film because the sound effects played such a large role in the experience of the film. I have to say that I echo that sentiment for the home theater experience, as the first twenty minutes of the film are nothing short of an absolutely sonic experience. LFE output is a big thing throughout the film as it rumbles and rocks the room on any given occasion, but combined with the surround distribution in the Omaha Beach sequence it makes for one of the most memorable surround mixes I’ve ever heard. There are occasional moments when watching a movie that a smile comes across my face as I am reminded why I love surround sound so much and Ryan is definitely guilty of causing that to happen again with this film; it is simply staggering not only the clarity of the audio but also the spread across the room that it has. Dialogue is predictably front and center, but throughout the film you get ambient sounds in the surrounds and, of course, bullets, panning effects, and more from every angle in the room. Without a doubt this DTS-HD 5.1 MA mix is demo material.
An Introduction (2:35): Director Steven Spielberg discusses his interest in WWII and how it led him to make the film.
Looking Into the Past (4:40): Steven Spielberg explains the research done for the film, the evolution of the screenplay and his intentions.
Miller and his Platoon (8:23): Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and other cast members introduce the different characters and how the actors worked together.
Boot Camp (7:37): Memories from the cast about the intense boot camp they went through with Captain Dale Dye.
Making Saving Private Ryan (22:05): Steven Spielberg and his collaborators discuss the look of the film, the production design, the costumes and the photography.
Re-creating Omaha Beach (17:58): A look at how the filmmakers re-created this historical event.
Music and Sound (15:59): Discussion with the team that edited, scored and brought sound to the film.
Parting Thoughts (3:43): Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks share their final thoughts on the experience of making the film.
Into the Breach (25:01): Saving Private Ryan: A 25-minute documentary with the cast and crew.
Shooting War (1:28:05): Tom Hanks hosts and narrates this documentary on WWII combat photographers in Europe and the Pacific theater of war.
Theatrical Trailer (2:16, HD)
Re-Release Trailer (2:05, HD)
It’s a pretty healthy mixture of extras here and the addition of “Shooting War” and “Into the Breach” (neither of which were on the previous DVD releases) is a nice addition to round out the package even if they were both likely seen previously (the “Shooting War” segment was aired on History Channel originally; not sure if “Breach” was made available in the past or not). Overall a Highly Recommended package and, I daresay, a Must Own if you don’t own the previous D-Day Edition release.
Saving Private Ryan is now available on Blu-ray.